A civilian building damaged following a Russian rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine (photo: palinchak)

Chartist spoke to Peter Duncan about the war on Ukraine and the possible scenarios for an ending

Why has Putin invaded Ukraine and what is he seeking to achieve?

We have to go back to the Orange Revolution of 2004 for the main context. It is clear Putin has two major motivations: one concerning Ukraine, and the other, the security situation in Europe. Russia has a case against NATO in the sense that, when Germany was unified in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev only agreed to it after US secretary of state James Baker and the West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, both said that there would be no expansion of NATO to the east. Baker actually said NATO could not expand an inch – i.e. put any of its facilities into the former GDR state. Nothing was written down or legally binding. Wrongly, Gorbachev thought he had a written guarantee. NATO had said at a Budapest summit in 1994 it was going to open up discussion with countries of Eastern Europe on the prospects of NATO membership for them. Russian politicians across the spectrum believed they had been deceived and betrayed, and began to feel threatened. Russian leaders, not just Putin, believed there was a threat, because if NATO was expressing a friendly intention then why could Russia not be allowed to join? Putin asked George Robertson, then NATO head, about joining. He responded by saying there is a queue. From then on Putin really lost interest in being part of NATO.

After the Orange Revolution in 2004 – originally a protest by Ukrainian people against electoral fraud – Russia put forward the view that this colour revolution was like Georgia the year before and had been organised by the US. This was not the case. It was certainly the case that Western countries had supported the protests, but when an election was held under neutral conditions the anti-Russia candidate won. Putin has wanted to punish Ukraine ever since and has seen the West as wanting to change the regime – not just in Ukraine but in Russia itself, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Then came the Bucharest summit in 2008 when, under pressure from George W. Bush, NATO announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. It didn’t say when; there was not even a date or NATO Membership Action Plan. But this really worried Putin and he believed his view of the Orange Revolution was correct. In order to stop Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, Georgia was provoked into a war, showing that NATO was not capable of, or willing to defend, either Georgia or Ukraine. As a result, NATO put membership plans for Georgia and Ukraine on the back burner. Over the last 14 years Putin has instrumentalised the fear that Ukraine would join.

Then we had the Maidan Square demonstrations in 2014 seeking to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych. Though he had been democratically elected this was nevertheless a popular revolution. Putin became more determined to act, to deliver a blow to NATO and stop any thoughts of enlargement into the former USSR. This has been at the root of Putin’s policy ever since.

So why now? And what is he hoping to achieve? Under Petro Poroshenko, and even more under Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine has been moving closer to the West, getting more weapons and training for its military so the Ukrainian army is better equipped. Putin realised time is against him. Also important is what’s been happening in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has few friends, leaving him isolated and very dependent on Putin. So Putin was able to say he wanted to use Belarus as a staging post for attacking Kyiv.

It is much easier to send troops from Belarus than from the Donbas, which was much more heavily defended with trenches and troops. The road from Belarus is shorter and easier to travel – that’s what Putin thought. He needs to take Kyiv to take over the whole country and form a puppet government. But the symbolism of controlling Kyiv, the mother of Russian cities, is what Putin wants. He wants to remove the Zelenskiy government and install a puppet regime. He also wants Ukraine to declare its neutrality and for NATO to remove its infrastructure from new NATO states. But Russian experts believe the latter was a negotiating position – it’s not going to happen.

What Putin fears most of all is that, unlike Belarus, Ukraine has a democratic system, as underlined by the election of 2019. It emphasised that you can speak a language like Russian, look like a Russian, be adjacent to Russia and have a functioning democracy. Zelenskiy has also been moving against the oligarchs, tackling the roots of inequality. This was seen as a further threat to Russia. All of this is anathema to Putin. He’d really like to abolish the Belarusian and Ukrainian states but probably this is not achievable.

Mistakes have been made by many Western governments. Russia was treated as a defeated nation. Not all Western states behaved that way. Tony Blair believed the West should be treating Russia with more respect; but he went too far the other way, saying Russia was a democracy when already Putin had been destroying Chechnya and taking control of media for his own ends.

But the situation now is very different. The guilt has now shifted overwhelmingly on to the Russian side, first in chopping up Georgia, then taking Crimea, and now in the horrible butchery in Ukraine.

To what extent are Ukraine, Belarus and Russia interlinked historically? Are they the same?

From a language point of view they all speak Eastern Slavonic languages. So they are close. What’s also clear is that Putin believes Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are all one people, meaning there is no need for independent states. Lukashenko has now fallen into line with this view.

All such languages are related. As far as culture is concerned, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus emerged from Kyivan Rus’, but parts have developed in different ways. Most if not all of what’s the Russian Federation was under the Tartar yoke until Muscovy established the Czardom of Moscow. Much of Ukraine was under self-governing communities. Peter the Great, in the late 17th century, was pushing the empire towards the west, and Catherine conquered quite a lot more of Ukraine when she subjugated Crimea and then Odessa and partitioned Poland. Parts of Galicia and Transcarpathia were under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poland was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 after the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the post-war settlement.

Partisans resisted Soviet annexation and fought on for decades, but the new frontiers of the Soviet Union (other than the incorporation of the Baltic states) were recognised by Western states. So what we have in Ukraine are cultural divisions, with the west orientated to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church while most oriented towards the Russian Orthodox. Following independence in 1991, there has been the growth of a church independent of the Russian Orthodox church. Much of the Ukrainian population had been culturally and politically oriented to Russia, but ever since Crimea and Donbas their orientation shifted towards the West. But further east, this is less so.

Putin’s proclaimed aims for the invasion have been ‘denazification’ and demilitarisation. But Ukraine has never had a fascist regime. It’s a liberal democracy trying to rid itself of oligarchic control. There were some tendencies that, during the Second World War, had cooperated with the Nazis. But the bulk of Ukrainian participants were using the Nazis to try to stop Soviet rule in Ukraine, which had done tremendous damage in the 1930s with the Holodomor (the ‘great famine’) as a result of forced collectivisation, in which millions of peasants died.

Now, what role have fascists played? On Maidan, part of the square was taken by Right Sector, the heirs of some who had cooperated with the Nazis – most famously Stepan Bandera, who was revered in Lviv where there is a statue to him. Under the government of Poroshenko, much of his ideas came into official ideology. But this has been fundamentally altered by the election of a Jew as president and, at one time, a prime minister who was also Jewish. On the contrary, it is inside Putin’s Russia that we have seen growing fascist influence. Putin has hosted conferences of extreme right wingers and fascists, including racists from the United States… So the boot is really on the other foot. It’s Putin’s regime that is offering succour to people who could be called Nazis.

What should we in the West be advocating? What are the most effective sanctions and forms of solidarity?

There is no place for neutrality. We have to support the Ukrainian people and President Zelenskiy against the Russian threat. There is a strong tradition in the British labour movement of resisting Nazism. I’m not saying Putin is a Nazi, but he is a dictator and genocide is being committed. The evidence shows this. Remember, the British Labour Party, at the beginning of the Second World War, rejected the idea that politics stops when you have a war. It led to the sacking of Chamberlain and Churchill replacing him. That could not have happened without Labour. It didn’t mean that Labour then decided to support all Conservative policies – quite the reverse: Labour developed ideas and policies that led to formation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Supporting Zelenskiy does not mean we have to support all of his liberal democratic policies. But we can say the government is trying to free Ukraine of oligarchs by moving to stronger actions in Ukraine to remove inequality. Equally, there is nothing wrong in urging Western governments to do more to support Ukraine. Keir Starmer is weak domestically in articulating clear socialist policies. But he is right to criticise the UK government on the scale and pace in sanctioning oligarchs and creating transparency in the ownership of properties and other assets, besides uncovering all sorts of other people who have donated to the Conservative Party. The European Union are pursuing a much greater level of sanctions than Britain. We should be demanding the same level of sanctions at least and trying to uncover all the oligarchs’ influence in British society, in the Tory party and the media. Starmer is raising questions, including about Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage – although the Evening Standard (owned by Lebedev) has openly supported Ukraine.

The key issue that’s going to divide the left is armaments. It’s clear there is an imperial aggressor seeking to control and subdue Ukraine. Ukraine, like any other member of the UN, whether Iraq or Israel, has a right not to be invaded by other countries, and a right to defend itself with the most up-to-date arms that Western countries can supply, whether missiles, tanks or artillery.

What are the checks and balances on Putin? What forces are there that could control or stop him internally? Does he have even more control than Stalin?

True, Russia has lost thousands of troops and several thousand tanks. Clearly the military leaders don’t like seeing their forces being destroyed. There was a time when Stalin had dictatorial power. Even when Stalin didn’t call Politburo meetings he felt the need to consult key colleagues on the phone. But after Stalin, there was always the Praesidium or Politburo that was always a check, so there weren’t dictators in this period. Putin is a dictator: there are no controls on his power.

So we have a possibility of something happening within the armed forces. Now the FSB (the successor to the KGB) is getting the blame for giving Putin false information. Putin was given false information – this is the only way of explaining his policies from 2014 onward. Putin’s advisers are afraid of him and don’t want to give him advice that he won’t like. So the question Putin would have raised – namely, can we expect the population to be supportive and loyal if we want to liberate Ukraine? – would have been answered in the affirmative. If the advisers said no, then he would say you haven’t been doing your job properly. The same would have happened if the armed forces had said we won’t be able to capture Kyiv.

Beyond this are the sanctions introduced especially against Putin’s cronies. Sanctions also have an effect on the leaders of the FSB. They have a personal interest in getting sanctions removed. As well as being leaders of state institutions, they have assets outside Russia.

Putin is well protected, with the Federal Protection Service in charge of the two Kremlin regiments directly responsible for his security. What’s essential is that the people in these institutions act together. His removal can only be done by the people in the FSB. It’s at the nuclear stage that this crisis could come. They have to transmit commands to the person who presses the button. It’s at that point that it’s most likely Putin will fall.

Can there be a negotiated settlement? What is the bridge for Putin to retreat over? Setting aside the nuclear or military outcome, what form could a settlement take?

At the moment, Zelenskiy will not agree to all the terms demanded before the war and for which Putin is still pressing: Ukraine neutrality, annexation of Crimea and independence of Donbas. Zelinskiy won’t accept these, although he has previously accepted that Ukraine won’t join NATO. If he does accept these demands Zelenskiy could well be overthrown; or if he’s not, there could be civil war, with those refusing to accept a settlement fighting on. But the Ukrainian army is far from defeated just now. The army is being supplied from the West. That’s why Putin launched attacks on military bases where supplies are coming from. Putin is also running out of missiles, going through precision guided missiles at a fast rate. Time is on the side of the Ukrainian army.

A negotiated settlement is quite a long way off. It might well be that the West puts pressure on Ukraine to come to a negotiated settlement because NATO is frightened of escalation. Then Ukraine might feel itself pressured and Zelenskiy might present it as the best possible outcome. It might not happen for several weeks, by which time Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities could be destroyed. But that will show Putin had made a gain by the use of military force, so this might encourage him to want more – namely, to annex southern Ukraine, to have a land link from Donbas, through the Azov Sea and further west. He might go for that because his appetite has been whetted. The FSB would show it could control opposition. This is the danger of a negotiated settlement. The situation is much more like Munich in 1938 with Chamberlain’s appeasement approach than it is like peace in Europe.

I don’t envisage a settlement any time soon. The great probabilities are of a palace coup or a longer conflict.

If Putin succeeds in killing Zelenskiy, this could be a big blow on Ukrainian morale and might mean a negotiated settlement is more likely. It’s public knowledge that there have been three assassination attempts – two by FSB agents and one by Chechens – but there is evidence of at least ten attempts on Zelenskiy’s life.

We should also be expressing solidarity with socialists in Ukraine, the Social Movement and various independent trade unions fighting oligarchic oppression, including all those in Russia opposing the war.

One thing we should do in collaboration with the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign is give publicity to the socialists and trade unionists so people in the UK are aware that the left is supporting the fight against Putin.

Starmer is right on sanctions but the danger is his uncritical position on NATO. According to him, NATO has not put a foot wrong. What are the likely outcomes of the war and the impact on Europe and the UK?

We should campaign to welcome all Ukrainian refugees. In fact all refugees, whether Syrian or Iraqi or from wherever, should be accepted. The government is breaking all the rules.

The main impact, regardless of military outcome, will be a desire to strengthen NATO and more defence spending. It means there is a clear red line between us and the Tories and right wing Labour. We will not sacrifice our welfare services and NHS. If there is an increase in defence spending we need a greater degree of socialist planning inside the economy than governments have been prepared to accept since the Second World War. Socialist planning, as opposed to a capitalist free-for-all, is vital. We’ve seen great state intervention during the Covid crisis. This needs to be hugely extended.

If it’s victory for Putin, it could involve partition of Ukraine and a puppet government. There might still be a free Ukrainian government in Lviv. Additionally, there might still be pressure from Eastern European NATO members to end the puppet regime. It could be a very unstable situation and lead to partisan war, out of which there will be huge pressure to supply the resistance.

So what does it mean for Russia? If Putin is overthrown, unfortunately the result is more likely to be a military or FSB dictatorship. That would be very unstable, and we should do everything to support democratisation and linking up with Russian socialists to bring that about. If Putin stayed in power that would be equally unstable, and we should be giving support to his opponents anyway. 


Peter J S Duncan is the author of Russian Messianism: Third Rome, Revolution, Communism and After (2014) and recently co-edited Socialism, Capitalism and Alternatives (UCL Press, 2019). He is an honorary associate professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Mike Davis and Nigel Doggett asked the questions.

1 COMMENT

  1. “We should be giving support to his opponents” suggest the interviewee is clueless about Russia. The oppostion to Putin is mainly the Communist Party. Which supports the military action and opposes NATO. For very different reasons, the smaller nationalist opposition also supports the military action and opposes NATO. Peter Duncan’s view has no support in Russia.

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